In honor of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to the United States and a return to sanity at the White House, I am posting a piece I wrote last spring when things looked so dire in this country. It felt like Bedlam here and observing the women leaders around the globe (Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Germany, New Zealand)—who were successfully combatting COVID-19, one could not help but long for leaders who listen and are instinctual nurturers.
Of the group, Merkel occupies the biggest role. As the head of the most populous nation in the European Union with one of the largest economies in the world, she’s smashed through the thickest glass ceiling to join the big boys at their G7 and G8 summits.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Merkel’s initial success with Covid-19 hit some snags, including a third Covid wave and her popularity plummeted as Germany struggled. It’s not the first time. Though she’s managed to hold on to her position for going on two decades, there’s widespread disapproval for her open-door policy towards refugees. But Merkel remains true to her convictions and is a paragon of steadfast, determination, hard work and principle.
What most people don’t know is that in addition to her position as Chancellor of Germany, Merkel also serves another more surprising role as muse to German artist Andreas Mühe. Power has been a source of fascination for Mühe, so it’s not surprising he’d choose Merkel as the subject of a photographic series. What is surprising is the work. Sumptuous to look at, it conveys Merkel’s power and essence without coming across as jingoistic, trite or banal.
Mühe possesses deep theatrical roots. Mühe’s mother is theater director Annegret Hahn and his late father, the highly acclaimed late actor Ulrich Mühe who played the central role of Gerd Wiesler in the powerful Oscar-winning 2006 film, “The Lives of Others”. Ulrich Mühe was 36 when the Berlin Wall came down and so had plenty of personal experiences of living under the cudgel of East Germany which he brought to the role of the Stasi captain. In fact, as a young man, Mühe held the awful position of border guard patrolling the Berlin Wall. The posting exacted a heavy emotional and physical toll, causing the stomach ulcers that would ultimately lead to the cancer that killed him at just 54.
In an ironic twist that presaged the plot of the “The Lives of Others”, Ulrich Mühe discovered in his own Stasi file (accessed following Reunification), that his second wife, actress, Jenny Gröllmann, had allegedly been informing on him. She denied the charges and was backed up by her former Stasi controller. She even won an injunction preventing the publishing of the senior Mühe’s book detailing the circumstances. But whether her version is correct doesn’t really matter because Mühe believed she betrayed him. When asked how he prepared for the role of Wiesler, Mühe famously replied, ”I remembered.” This burden of trauma not only informed his life, but it is also a profound legacy of angst passed down to his son.
The blurring of truth and illusion is the business of both theater and police states and they are themes central to Andreas Mühe’s work. He epically tackles these dual forms of reality in his moving, complex and slightly creepy, “Mischpoche” (from the Yiddish “mishpokhe”, meaning tribe or clan), producing an unusually comprehensive pair of family portraits. The work comprises way more than the finished photographs; the laborious process entailed in their creation is a hugely important aspect. This is because Mühe’s portraits include not just his living family members, but the dead ones as well, carefully recreated by him in lifelike silicone. Mühe uses old photographs to fashion his remarkably realistic three-dimensional versions—theatrical props, if you will—of his deceased father and two stepmothers, Gröllmann and actress Susanne Lothar.
Mühe’s foray into the realm of sculpture afforded him a lengthy period in which to ponder family, and life and death. The resulting dolls, as Mühe calls them, are simply staggering in their lifelikeness. And the lushly beautiful photographs he took of them during the course of their creation are so strange and startling, they stop you in your tracks. We don’t know what to make of these partial humans with the mechanical parts and pieces of their construction exposed.
But this is just one step in a arduous process. After completing the dolls, Mühe arranges them together with his living family members into a kind of tableau vivant that he photographs.
Mühe uses a large-format camera which has a uniform field of focus and thus produces prints of terrific clarity. It’s not how the eye sees and so makes everything look a little artificial. This leveling of the playing field between inanimate and animate objects serves Mühe well, visually equating the living and the dead. Coming upon these photographs without knowing the backstory, one wouldn’t think anything of them. And in a way, they aren’t that much different from an ordinary photograph. Photographs aren’t family members, but representations of them. Just as the dolls are, albeit just one more step removed.
The two family portraits appear to have been taken on a stage in mid-scene of a performance, as if the action has suddenly been arrested. Mühe’s stopped time, or at least manipulated it—suspended both the living and dead like amber in an artificial reality.
Except for their large size, the photographs recall production stills like the ones put up in a theater lobby during the run of a play. The theater conceit is a reference to the family members’ occupations, but it also underscores the artificiality of the whole thing. To emphasize this even more, Mühe intentionally includes camera equipment and camera tracks in the foreground of the photographs and he even appears in shadow on the right side of “Mühe II”, a Christmas scene complete with decorations and lavish tree.
With “Mischpoche”, Mühe has done something we’d all like to do: he’s breathed life into family members who have died and also mended their fractured relationships. It may be pure fiction, but the intention and effect are really quite moving.
But to return to Angela Merkel, I want to discuss Mühe’s series, “A.M. – Eine Deutschlandreise” (“A Trip to Germany”) from 2013. The portfolio of 11 photographs presents a riveting and unconventional portrait of power. The inspiration for the project came during a trip to the U.S. Mühe took as official photographer accompanying Chancellor Merkel. At one point, he asked one of her bodyguards if he could take a picture of her inside her limousine, and was told no, for security reasons. So, he decided to recreate the effect himself. When “A.M. – Eine Deutschlandreise” initially came out, it caused a big stir in Germany as people thought the chancellor, who had been photographed by Mühe officially, had actually posed for it.
To produce the “A.M. – Eine Deutschlandreise” series (the A.M. stands for Angela Merkel, but it could just as easily be Andreas Mühe), Mühe returned to his theatrical roots, casting his mother in the role of Merkel. He took her to a number of significant sites around the country representative of German identity. These aren’t your garden variety spots familiar to tourists, the Reichstag, Neuschwanstein, the Brandenburg Gates, or a beer garden, but subtler places that you almost have to be German to recognize. In the photos, Mühe’s mother wears a wig and clothes that evoke Merkel. She is either sitting in a car looking out the window, or standing in front of the vehicle taking in her surroundings.
Dressing up like another person is a central conceit of Cindy Sherman’s work. But I’ve never been able to shed the sense that it’s all an enormous vanity project. Mühe avoids this by training his camera on someone other than himself.
Unlike Sherman, Mühe photographs his subject from the back. This is necessary to assist with the impersonation, but it also adds a mysterious, almost voyeuristic quality to the photographs. As has been suggested, Mühe may be referencing the great German Romantic painter, Caspar David Friedrich in his use of a Rückenfigur, “Figure from the back” composition. The visual conceit was popularized by Friedrich and his cohorts as a means to give the viewer a you-are-there experience. Like Friedrich’s existential icon, “The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog”, Mühe’s “Angela” is all alone gazing at some resonant part of Germany. Is she just taking it in, or looking for answers? The locales are varied. Some seem hospitable and easy, while others complicated and unknowable. In either case, they’re fitting metaphors for the leader of a country confronting its many challenges.
The two standouts of the series are “The Villa Hügel,” a study in contrasts, with the lush peonies held by the woman in the car offering a soft and delicate foil to the imposing gray structure—the residence of Germany’s powerful Krupp Family—visible through the rain-blurred windshield. The frilly pink flowers also suggest romance, as does the ornate façade of the building at which the woman stares so wistfully, deftly conveyed by the incline of her head. Is the image hinting at some unknown past, or does it depict yearning for the Germany that existed before 1914? Or, maybe, given the Krupp Family’s ties to steel and armaments, an acknowledgement of the inevitability of war?
The second, “Audi on the Zugspritze”, looks more like a painting than a photograph. In this image, the woman holds a metal thermos cup and stares out at the Zugspritze, the highest peak in Germany. This shot required herculean efforts on the part of Mühe and his assistants who had to lug the door of an armored Audi A8, weighing nearly a ton, up to the site for the photo.
The “A.M. – Eine Deutschlandreise” photographs have an appealing retro look. It has something to do with the quality of the light and the somewhat washed-out colors that seem reminiscent of old ads, vintage postcards, or mid-century travel posters. In any case, they resonate with nostalgia.
Having been born in East Germany and ten when the wall came down, Mühe experienced living under the harsh conditions of the GDR followed by a very different experience of Germany post-reunification. This can’t help but give him a deep understanding of his country and its people.
In his series of backdrops, Mühe offers a contemporary spin on the German idolization of its ancient culture, tradition and land. There is both pride and unease in these photographs made manifest by the introduction of the Merkel character. We see and sense the beauty, the power, the history, but there are also implicit questions prompted by Merkel’s presence. She seems to be looking for the answers as much as anyone, which suggests a person who is thoughtful, conscientious, responsible, humble. All exceedingly admirable qualities in a leader. They engender confidence and a feeling that whatever the future brings, we are in competent hands. Merkel may not please everyone and might put a foot wrong now and then, but in balance, she has led her country through extraordinarily challenging times with decisive shrewdness and compassion. Some may think a great leader deserves a statue in a square. I think there is no better monument than these curiously compelling photographs that function both as stand-alone artworks and tributes to this remarkable and powerful woman.